- Loving the Other in 1970s Harlem: Race, Space, and Place in Aaron Loves Angela
In the 1975 film Aaron Loves Angela, two teenagers—a young Puerto Rican woman and an African American man—fall in love in Harlem. Their love becomes a primer for encounters: between different forms of racial otherness, between regions of Harlem (east and west), between worldviews, and between communities that live together as much in conflict as in intimacy. Their crossing resituates the Romeo and Juliet script for big unruly emotions that refuse to respect traditional boundaries of family into an even messier world of modern social formations and territory, one that is the American city, perhaps the City writ large. That city is simultaneously balkanized—cut up by race and class—and capacious, fragilely holding multifarious differences together. The film’s setting, of 1970s Harlem, is a place that is in the midst of economic crisis and social flux, and a space that contains the linked histories of diverse peoples; as such it offers both context and backdrop for explosive affect.
Harlem carries a great deal of symbolic weight: representing the enduring problematic of race in America, the global question of the claims of blackness, and the modern dilemma of how different peoples exist together. The registers in which Harlem is lived and represented are local, national, and global, all at once. It is also a space in which there is, in geographer Doreen Massey’s words, “a meeting up of histories” (2005). One need do little more than walk down a central artery of the area, 125th Street, west to east, to see and hear the tensions and intimacies of those encounters: the famous Apollo Theater, a sign of the energy of a creative African American culture, and a bulwark against historic claims of the cultural superiority of whiteness; large corporate chains like Old Navy and new luxury condominiums that signify community transformation on opposite ends, of neighborhood development and gentrification; a multitude of languages spoken, English, Spanish, French, Wolof, Chinese, and more; and the visible clash between older and newer inhabitants, manifested in anxious looks, hostile stares, and open curiosity. [End Page 171]
In many respects, Harlem is an exemplary chaos-monde of the sort that Martinican critic Édouard Glissant has written of: a complex social world that gives rise to unpredictable combinations and oppositions, a space more on the scale, and mimicking the shape, of the global rather than hewing to the constraining form of the national.1 As Glissant describes it, the chaosmonde “is neither fusion nor confusion: it acknowledges neither the uniform blend—a ravenous integration—nor muddled nothingness” (1997, 94). If this model for interpreting difference originates from the constant and vexed cultural encounters of the Caribbean, it is also, and increasingly, importable to much of the world in which inside and outside are no longer clearly defined, and for which diversity is embroidered into daily life.2 And yet the sort of diversity that is lived, imagined, projected eludes many critics whose lens is group identity or community formation. The demographic data of the social sciences that have revealed extraordinarily polyglot spaces in both urban and suburban/rural contexts provide but the most rudimentary framework for the deeper questions of what it means to be and feel in interactions with those you imagine to be somehow distinct. Part of what remains obscured, then, in many admirable projects that map old and new societies, is the experience of lived multiplicity.
This essay seeks to illuminate the life of diversity through a discussion of affect, a sum of the responses and possibilities—bodily, psychic, and social—that are generated by encounters with and of difference. What shall be explored here as thematizing Harlem is an affect of relation. If emotion or sensation is a subjective and individual, though certainly not unproductive, reaction to difference, I would suggest that the patterning of the collective responses in place is its affect.3 Part of what demands to be interpretively pried open in Harlem is its intense density of encounter, that which is not only a symptom of contemporary forces of globalization, in which city-spaces have become much more...